Caverna Magica -- Describing a Fictional Place

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SWBAT use precise details and sensory imagery by describing an imagined setting.

Big Idea

Enter the magic cave! Describing an imagined setting for strong narrative writing.

Lesson Introduction

It's generative. One of Hillocks' ideas about writing is that pre-writing should be generative in nature.  That is, the task that the larger writing involves should somehow be contained in a miniature version when students pre-write.  If you think about it, the "fists of fire" (see previous lesson) is generative because the students will need to think, almost at every turn, about how their character is feeling and how they can make those feelings come alive, and the fists of fire gives each student a taste of that kind of thinking.

It's novel.  Here, I ask students to imagine a setting by listening to some weird sounds.  Yes, they are just plain weird, but for some reason, they seem to evoke a far off place, even a struggle of some sort.  It's called "Caverna Magica," and it's the first 90 seconds of a new age-y type song by a German composer, Andreas Vollenweider.  As I listen to the sounds that start this track, I envision abandoned mine shaft or tunnel that opens up to a cave.  The persons in the scene are speaking in a non-English, hushed exchange, which gives an exotic feel to this scene.  Could be spies, could be anything!  

It's a skill builder. The main point is that students will need to listen to describe the scene from the first person and do so in a way that someone can vividly experience the dark, musty, rotten corridor with cobblestones and sand underfoot  (W.9-10.3d).  This is not just great practice in using descriptive technique (W.9-10.3b), it's a generative experience in imagining, and it's fun!  Weird, but fun.  


**Link to Hillocks' book on narrative writing (link).


Andreas Vollenweider clip

15 minutes

First Run. I play the clip in full with the lights off in the classroom.  This is pre-writing only (i.e. just listening and thinking.)  I want the student to listen and mentally image what they see!  

In the classroom, the students are typically dumbfounded, but then I ask them to re-create the scene from one of the character's perspectives (or their own character that they have already begun to create!).  They should appeal to the five senses as they write so that someone reading can see what the character saw and feel what he or she felt.  (link)

Second Run.  I play the sooundscape again, this time having the students write while they listen.  That is, I deliberately ask the students NOT to write as they listen the first time, since I want them to be pre-writing by mentally imaging and "seeing" what they will describe; now, I want them to continue to write without pausing.  While the first pass through the auditory imagery was just to get the sense of the place and what it might be like in each student's imagination, the second pass is to give the students the chance to try to re-create this experience.  

[Note: the auditory imagery depicts a struggle of some sort, and I have yet to have a student take this exercise in a violent turn, but if that were to happen, I would gently nudge the students back to something less dramatic and crime/noir-oriented.]  That said, the students can decide how much plot, per se, they want, but I just ask them to have some semblance of a beginning/middle/end (W.9-10.3c) so that it all hangs together, but I ask them to focus on the vividness of the description from their imagination of the scene. 

**This just in, might be fun to pair this with a reading of Poe's "Cask of Amontillado," which features underground caves/catacombs. 

Processing.  The students will want to share what they have written with a partner, and I will ask for a couple of volunteers to read aloud.  The idea, again, is to normalize the struggle that attends imagining and re-creating scene and story from one's imagination. 

Some famous openings! Models for students to discuss.

20 minutes

We've just completed an exercise in creating an imagined setting; now, we'll read (link) a second example (the first was in yesterday's lesson) in which the author does a superb and memorable job of creating a vivid character (RL.9-10.3) that is evoked through the description of the scene (W.9-10.3b).  

This famous opening comes from Hard Times by Charles Dickens.  This is part of my hidden curriculum: yesterday, the students were exposed to a snippet of The Hobbit, and today, a great novel by Dickens.  We may not have time or space or inclination to read an entire Dickens novel anymore in grade 9, but I can always smuggle in some challenging texts (RL.9-10.10), even if bit by bit!  

I hope for a robust, even if short discussion in which the students can make powerful observations about the text and offer those to the class (SL.9-10.1).  I will read the excerpt because it does require a bit of dramatic reading and it is written at a difficulty level that is likely above the comfort zone of my students.  I will try to play up the humor of the piece, which exaggerates the dour, severe, and (literally) square nature of the schoolmaster. 


I will ask (in large group):

1.) What type of person is the teacher?  How does the description of him (and the motif of square/rectangle) create a severe effect?

2.) How can you start your character cameo sketch in an interesting way that makes your character come to life?  How can you use all five senses as you do so?


Follow-up: Examine your writing from yesterday (bottom of page 2 of the character cameo handout--link).  And a few details to evoke your character's scene a bit more vividly!